The English Medium School
The English Medium School16 mins 421 16 mins 421
This was my first day at school, a real school. An English medium school at that. In a big city. At least bigger than I had ever lived in. Six-year-olds do not feel happiness or sadness or even fear on a continual basis, fleeting feelings hit you momentarily, so I am not sure if I was very sad or very excited or scared that day but I can remember feeling all of it at different times of the day.
My last school had been in a village, a truly magical place near a vast reservoir, forests and small hills. You never wore a school dress at that school, except on 15th August and 26th January. On the Independence Day and the Republic day you wore a maroon skirt and a white top and participated in the parade, rest of the days of the year the dress slept in the drawers. Many children there did not even have shoes to wear to school, they wore slippers to school. Many carried books in handmade cloth bags, the sort people used for shopping grocery. There were only three houses between my house and the school, so typically I waited at home for the school bell to ring and then ran to my class. Only the older classes had wooden desks and benches for their use. I had studied there till the second grade and till that grade, students sat on the floor on jute mats. The teacher did have a desk and a chair. In the winters we carried her desk and chair in the sun and we had classes outdoors. I remember how when we sat on the bare ground on one such day a classmate pulled out a bunch of grass and taught me which part of the root was edible and juicy. There were no other schools within sixty kilometres so my parents had no choice and they were against sending little children to boarding schools.
I did not know much about the pleasures of big city living like theatres or shops with neon glow sign boards in fashionable markets or ice-cream parlours for that matter (except for brief encounters with such kind during vacations spent with grandparents and uncles in metro cities) so never missed it. Life was idyllic for me and my family. My father was a fishery scientist and a workaholic at that, indeed workwise it was a very fruitful and rewarding period for him. He was posted at this remote research station along-with a handful of other staff from a couple of other government departments.
So, though we lived in a place that was technically a village, not all our neighbours were typical villagers. My baby sister was then only 2 and she would have been pretty happy anywhere else in the world where her mother was, as much as she was here. My mother, in turn, was very happy anywhere as long as her family was safe and happy and she was allowed the free use of all her faculties. She had made some close friends from among the neighbours, the wives of my father’s colleagues’, and together they baked cakes and biscuits, made pappads and pickles, exchanged recipes, threw dinner parties and celebrated kids’ birthdays.
On more adventurous days they went on picnics or held amateur drama workshops or poetry sessions. We frequently had guests; family, friends and often friends of friends (as there were no hotels there then) visited and stayed long, for unless you had some very urgent business you did not like to leave a place like this soon. If anybody wished to visit this beautiful place, they had to depend on kindness of friends to board them. Indeed, guests were very welcome to break the monotony and bring a whiff of the outside world.
The only thing that troubled my mother in her paradise was the quality of education her kids would be getting. The school where I studied was perhaps much better than many others in similar conditions in the country. To be sure, the teachers tried to teach to the best of their abilities. A good English medium school with the solid old tradition of erudition was a place where children must receive instructions, at least for some years, to set them up for life, that was what my mother believed. My father seconded her thoughts, having been similarly educated himself, though he professed his belief with a lesser degree of passion, as was his style with all other things in the world, except his own work. Math and English were the foundation of any good education, so my mother was brought up to believe. Not expecting to be taught English with any degree of quality at the village school, she taught me English at home with good measure of success.
I read and wrote the language well for a child of my age but could not speak fluently. I said my multiplication tables in Hindi with a sing-a-song tone as I had been taught in school. By the time I was not 5, my mother had started persuading my father to compromise his own ambitions a bit for the sake of the future of the children and seek a transfer to a city which would have good educational institutions. He would have to take up a position that would have considerable administrative responsibilities and hence his research would suffer to some extent, but he owed this to his children. Having been thus persuaded, after more than a year of effort put in towards the avowed goal, my father achieved success in the form of securing a transfer order to a city, which was received shortly after I had celebrated my sixth birthday.
The city we were moving to had a special interest for my family. My father’s family had strong ties with the place. My father, his brothers, and sisters had spent their childhood and a considerable part of their youth there. So, there was much-animated conversation and writing back and forth between him, his parents and siblings as to which of their acquaintances remained there, whom to get in touch with and much more in a similar vein. All of them said, they would plan a visit as soon as we were settled in the city. I was just as fascinated as if getting to the city would give me a peek at my father’s childhood.
Plus, there was certainly some relief my parents felt in returning to the civilization like being connected to a railway station, airport, telephones or not having to travel 100 kms if you wanted to buy anything above basic grocery. Not to speak of being near actual theatres which ran the latest movies, instead ancient prints of very old movies they had been watching at the clubhouse for the past eight years.
But the parting would be difficult as well as they knew. The ties had grown deep in the wilderness, much like the roots of the trees around. They knew well how unlikely it was that we would be genuinely loved and cherished by an entire community, anywhere else in the world like the close knit one we were leaving behind. My mother and her friends wept copiously; father tried his best to lighten the sombre mood. Almost the entire village came to see us off at the railhead sixty kilometres away. I remember the retainer, who looked after my baby sister, had accompanied us to the city to settle us; when he was leaving back for the village there were tears streaming down his face and my baby sister wailing for him to return from my mother’s lap. I was not so much taken in by the environment for I had told myself that I would return back soon. It is another story that I was able to return only thirty-five years later; I went with the least expectation of finding any vestige of my childhood and was surprised at discovering how much of it was still left there.
Soon after we moved into the city my mother’s agenda was accomplished. I secured admission in a reputed school. The school was ancient; more than hundred years old at that time itself and was still maintaining its impeccable reputation of discipline and erudition. My father had gone to an all-boys school, but two of his younger brothers had studied at this school which now primarily catered to girls. When my uncles had studied the teachers were predominantly British or Anglo-Indian, some of them still remained. Amazingly, the school had the same Principal as when my uncles had studied.
My father had met her once on coming to the city and mentioned her old boys. The principal agreed to meet me. So, I went with my father to meet this very old white lady in skirts who wore high heeled shoes and lipstick and perfume. I had not seen the likes of her in real life as my grandmothers and other old ladies like them moved dowdily around in saris worn in old-fashioned ways. I was scared that I would not be able to catch a single word of what she would say. She must have guessed my predicament as she did not address me much except few short questions which I answered prompted by my father. She also asked to me to read from an open book, which I think I did fairly well. She carried on a conversation with my father for some-time the gist of which I could not fully understand and we parted. My parents later explained that I would have to study the second grade again as the principal felt, justifiably they thought, that, one at six, I was too young to be at the third grade and second though my English was good, I may have difficulty in following the instructions due to my challenge with spoken English. I did not think it mattered much either way.
For my first day at the school I walked with my father through the huge iron gates again. I was in plain clothes as my uniform still was not stitched. My father told this to the teacher in-charge of the discipline so, who stood at the gate, and she said that it was fine at the beginning of the session and for new students to come to school in coloured clothes for the next two or three days. There were many among the teachers who were very white like milk or very black like coal. I asked my father why there were so many ‘firangs’ here. He told me when they were young there were lot of British living in this city, but after India became independent most of them went back to their country, but some stayed back as they had come to consider this country their own.
The school buildings, several clusters of them, had tiled roofs coloured red and green, many were discoloured. The buildings were very old but very neatly kept. They looked to me like the pictures of Hansel and Gretel’s house from my storybook. My father asked for the direction of ‘II D’, my class and was directed by some older students. There were happy, confident, chattering students all around, perhaps reuniting after holidays. At last we were able to find my class, a wooden board hung by the door with IID written on it. Several groups of students were chatting animatedly amongst themselves. There was a girl sitting by herself and she was in coloured clothes like me. I was glad my father had come with me. My father suggested that we chat and sit with the girl, as she might be a newcomer like me. We went and greeted her, she smiled and looked up from her book.
My father asked her name and she said her name was Grace George. Oh, wow, I thought another name like one of those from my story books. Grace invited me to sit by her. And no, she was not a newcomer, her new uniform was not yet ready so she had come in coloured clothes. My father asked me now if he could leave. I knew there was no way he could stay so I bravely told him that I was fine. He told me to look for him at the gate when the school dispersed in the afternoon. Fortunately, Grace spoke Hindi, for which I felt greatly relieved. As there was still some time to the assembly bell to go, Grace offered to show me the important places in the school. First, she took me to the back of the school there was a huge gate like that in the front but it was open. It opened on a narrow lane and across the lane was a modern building. Grace said that it is the new building of the school, when we went to third grade we would be studying there. Then, she showed me the drinking water taps. The restrooms were atop a grassy knoll a little away from the classes on way to the playground. They called the playground the fields, it was huge and there were bamboo trees growing on the edges. The Assembly hall was on one side of the ‘fields’.
Grace said that we could sit under the bamboo trees in the field and have our lunch. I told her that was a very good idea. The bell rang for the assembly and Grace guided me to the correct line for our class. The Children here stood in horizontal lines for the assembly instead of vertical lines in my old school. The hall was open on three sides so I was looking at the sun-drenched fields during assembly. The prayer was beautiful, it was accompanied by a teacher who played the huge piano kept on one side of the assembly hall. We returned to the class in lines which moved out of the hall in order, youngest classes first and then to the oldest.
Our teacher came in. She said her name was Mrs Munnalal. She asked who were the newcomers. I stood up, she asked my name and then started to take attendance of the class. I carefully followed others and practised in my mind to say ‘present miss’ when my name was called out just like everybody else was saying. The task was accomplished as I had planned. I did not have much difficulty in following Mrs Munnalal as she did not have an accent nor did she speak too rapidly. She told us that she was busy doing some work now so we could open and see our books and write our name and class on our books and copies. My father had neatly covered all my books and copies in brown papers and also pasted a name label on each, written my name on them. I just wrote down my class and section. The children started talking while the teacher was busy. The teacher said that she wanted ‘pin drop silence’ in her class. She went on to explain this meant that nobody should talk and the silence would be such that when a pin was dropped its sound could be heard. Everyone went quiet just the way she wanted but she did not drop the pin, for which I waited and then gave up. The maths teacher came next, she was a white lady with a strong whiff of perfume around her. She wrote some addition and subtraction sums on the black-board and asked us to do them in our maths notebook, the ones with squares, each digit to go in one square.
This was no brainer so I accomplished the task easily and lined up to get my copy checked like the others. I was hugely relieved when she ticked and signed off my notebook. This teacher too did not turn out as difficult to navigate as I had feared. She spoke the word ‘thirty’ in a strange accent, it sounded like ‘tertee’ to me. She also crossed her ‘7s’ half way through, a style I liked and started following. Gradually through the day, my fear of being spoken to in English and not being able to comprehend or respond to what was being said to me, started to abate. I discovered and was glad that none of the teachers or students were bothered by my presence.
I had lunch with Grace under the Bamboo trees in the field. There was a banana and a muffin in my tiffin. The banana was getting a little soiled and smelly for which I felt a little ashamed but Grace seemed not to mind. She had ‘dosas’ with red chutney in her lunchbox which she shared with me; it was very tasty. I went through my new books during the rest of the day, enjoying the fragrance of new books and the pictures. The Hindi book was same as I had in my last class, which I was very glad of as I knew all the lessons and poems by heart.
The bell rang for dispersal at 1pm in the afternoon. I had already collected my things and kept my bag ready. Grace and I ran towards the gate. Grace boarded a school bus, which stood near the gate, inside the school. She told me she came by bus. I did not have to look long for my father, I saw him in the crowd soon enough. I spotted my friend Bobby, back from village, in the crowd of students. We called out to him but he could not hear us. Father said that Bobby’s father had been transferred to our city a few months prior to us and that we would visit them soon. I was very glad that now I had a real friend in this school, though not in my class.
Father showed me the school he went to on our way back, it was quite near to my school. He told me to try and memorise the route home from the school so that I knew where to go if ever I was stranded or lost. I tried to remember, left from the school gate, pass by father’s school by the left. Further, turn right at the theatre. The Hindi movie ‘Trishul’ was running at the theatre; the poster had a man’s face and lot of fire in the background. Further down, take a left turn, near a small restaurant run by my uncle’s friend, father said we will go to eat there soon, and now we were at the bus station. I knew that our house was very near to it, as I had walked down to the bus station several times in the last few days for something or the other.
Mother was at the door, looking out for us. Dad left us and went back to his office, which was just next door. While Mother was taking off my shoes and getting my bath things ready, I told her everything that had happened in school that day. My sister had found a bag and stuffed some magazines into it; she hung the bag on her shoulders and pretended to go to school like me. My mother said that they had found a very nice kindergarten school nearby for my sister and that she would be going to school soon.
In the evening, I reminded father of his promise to take us to have a look at their old home. Father said we could all walk down to it as it was not very far away from our home. So, we went and saw the house, it was old like most of the buildings around. Father said we would come back and meet their old landlady some other day. My sister did not want to walk and she blocked my mother’s way wanting to be picked up. So, my mother carried her for some time and then she got tired so father carried her for the rest of the way.
While putting us to bed mother said, I would be going to school by a rickshaw from tomorrow, along with some other children. The rickshaw puller was a kind man and would take good care of me. But I must get up early and be ready by 6.30 in the morning as we can’t keep the rickshaw waiting. She also told me that my grandparents would be visiting us in a month’s time. I went to sleep very happy thinking of all the wonderful stories my grandmother would tell us at bedtime when she came.